Common Chemicals in Personal Care Products and Cosmetics

Chemicals that You Should Avoid when Purchasing Beauty Products

As you will soon see, the list of concerning chemicals is long and strange names abound. But once you’ve identified those that pose the greatest health and environmental threats, you’ll be much better equipped to protect your own personal health as well as that of the planet. And now that there are so many great companies making products without these chemicals - so amazingly effective, natural personal care products to choose from - you’ll be lookin’ beautiful without risk to your own personal well-being. 

  • 1,4-dioxane: Used as a stabilizer in many personal care products, 1,4-dioxane can be found in toner, shampoos, lotions, cleansers, scrubs, soaps, and more. This chemical readily penetrates the skin and is considered a probable carcinogen, a kidney toxicant, neurotoxicant, and respiratory toxicant.[1]
  • Alcohols: There are many alcohols commonly used in personal care products, including benzyl alcohol, ethanol, ethyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, methanol, and SD alcohol. Not only do these chemicals strip your skins natural acid mantle and dry out your skin making you more prone to viruses and mold, they are possible carcinogens and toxic to other bodily systems. And since they’re derived usually from petroleum products, they’re unsustainable from the very start.[2][3][4][5][6]
  • Ammonia: Used as a pH adjuster and fragrance agent in hair dyes, facial moisturizers, and rash creams, ammonia is known to be toxic to human respiratory systems, sense organs, and may be a cardiovascular toxicant as well. It may also be a carcinogen.[7]
  • Benzoyl peroxide: Used in acne creams, benzoyl peroxide is an anti-acne agent that can also be found in soaps, exfoliants, cleansers, facial masks, shaving creams, and nail glues. Similar to triclosan (see below), it is a potential carcinogen and hormone disruptor and bioaccumulates in the environment where it can harm wildlife.[8]
  • Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA): Known also as things like BHT, tert-Butyl-4-methoxyphenol, 3-tert-Butyl-4-hydroxyanisole, Anisole, butylated hydroxy-, and Phenol, BHA is used as a preservative in personal care products such as face washes, scrubs, exfoliants, toners, lipsticks, shampoos, conditioners, and bubble baths. It is a possible carcinogen, a known immunotoxicant, endocrine disruptor, and disrupts aquatic ecosystems.[9]
  • Coal tar dyes: Used in make-up and personal care products, coal tar dyes (known as p-phenylenediamine or labeled as “C.I.” followed by a five digit number, or with “FD&C” or “D&C” on ingredients lists), are recognized carcinogens and may further be contaminated with heavy metals and aluminum.[10]
  • Diazolidinyl urea: Another preservative used commonly in skincare products, this chemical is known to be an immune system toxicant, skin toxicant, and possible carcinogen. It may also be linked to nervous system and endocrine system problems.[11] It can also release formaldehyde which can then be inhaled.[12]
  • Diethanolamine (DEA): This is a surfactant and is used to make cosmetics sudsy or creamy. DEA is used in things like cleansers and shampoos and is considered a toxic substance for the immune and nervous systems in humans. It is also considered toxic to the environment as it can harm aquatic life.[13]
  • DMDM Hydantoin: This is a chemical used as a germicide, fungicide, defoamer, and preservative in many personal care products (make-up remover included), yet it is a known human immune system toxicant and a suspected skin irritant.[14] It may also be a carcinogen and could contribute to depression, headaches, and dizziness.
  • Ethanolamine: Known commonly as MEA as well as many other names, this chemical is a pH adjuster and is used in shampoos, hair relaxers, hair colors, and cleansers. It has suspected linkages to immune and respiratory problems, sense organ disorders, and cancer.[15]
  • Formaldehyde: Use as an antiseptic or a preservative in personal care products, formaldehyde can cause nose, throat, eye, and skin irritation, may aggravate asthma, and could cause vomiting and coma. In long-term or high concentrations, it has also been linked to cancer and reproductive system disorders.[16] Formaldehyde is known also as formalin, urea formaldehyde, or phenol formaldehyde.
  • Glycolic acid: This is a chemical used in personal care products like anti-aging skincare, cleansers, acne treatments, moisturizers, masks, skin lighteners, scrubs, and toners as a pH adjuster and exfoliant. Glycolic acid may be an organ toxicant and a reproductive disruptor.[17]
  • Lactic acid: Known also as lactate, hydroxypropanoic acid, among other things, this ingredient is added to moisturizers, cleansers, scrubs, anti-aging products, acne treatments, toners, and moisturizers as an exfoliant, humectants, skin conditioner, pH adjuster, or fragrance ingredient. It may be a neurotoxin, and a suspected organ system toxicant.[18]
  • Mineral oil: This is a petroleum product used as a moisturizer in many personal care products that comes with hazards associated with that industry. It is also considered an occlusive oil which clogs pores by creating a barrier to keep moisture against your skin but it doesn’t fully absorb, which means you’ll be applying it more often. Mineral oil is related to mineral oil jelly, petroleum jelly, or petrolatum. The European Union considered petrolatum a carcinogen because it can be contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which are associated with cancer.[19]
  • Octyl-dimethyl: Also known as PABA, Padimate-O, this is used as a UVA and UVB blocking agent in sunscreens, lotions, and moisturizers. It can cause DNA damage, estrogen disruption, allergic reaction, and is a suspected environmental toxin.[20]
  • Octyl-methoxycinnamate: Most commonly called Octinoxate, this chemical is a UVA and UVB blocking agent used to make lotions, moisturizers, and sunscreens. It has estrogenic impacts on humans, may damage skin cells, and has a transexualization impact on male fish in the wild.[21]
  • Oxybenzone: You can find this UV absorber and UV filter on the ingredient list under a multitude of names such as Durascreen, Solaquin, and others, it is a likely endocrine disruptor, cardiovascular toxicant, and also bioaccumulates in the environment.[22]
  • Parabens: This class of chemicals is used to preserve many personal care products, but have been linked to hormone disruption and other human health problems including cancer.[23]
  • Phenol: This is an antimicrobial agent, exfoliant, analgesic, biocide, denaturant, deodorant agent, and fragrance ingredient that is used to make all kinds of personal care products like rash creams, lip balms, sunscreens and after sun creams, hemorrhoid treatments, scrubs, diaper creams, and wound treatments. It is a likely neurotoxin, a known respiratory toxicant, and bioaccumulates in the environment resulting in harm to wildlife.[24]
  • Phthalates: Most chemical scents are fixed to the product by phthalates which have been linked to additional serious human health problems, such as liver and kidney failure.[25][26] Phthalates are also used in numerous personal care products as preservatives.
  • Polyvinylpyrrolidone (PVP): Used as an emulsion stabilizer, binder, hair fixative, suspending agent, and antistatic agent in conditioners, hair products, cleansers, moisturizers, shaving creams, eye liners, mascaras, and anti-aging products. PVP has been linked to endocrine and organ system problems.[27]
  • Polyethylene glycols (PEGs): Utilized in many products as solvents and humectants, this chemical is of particular concern because it acts on the skin by opening up the pores to facilities more rapid absorption of environmental toxins like DDT.[28]
  • ·Polysorbate 80: This chemical may be linked to reproductive system disorders, organ system toxicity, neurotoxicity, and even cancer.[29] It may also be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane.
  • Propylene glycol (PG): A form of mineral oil, pharmaceutical grade propylene glycol is an alcohol that is used in personal care products as a solvent for colors and flavors. It has been shown to cause eye and throat irritation, metabolic acidosis (in high concentrations), reduced red blood cells and hemoglobin, and developmental problems.[30]
  • Quaternium-15: As a preservative and antistatic agent, quanternium-15 is used in makeup, facial powder, cleansers, soaps, anti-aging products, and body washes. It is a known human immune toxicant, causes skin irritation, and may have negative impacts on endocrine and organ systems. It can also off-gas formaldehyde.[31]
  • Resorcinol: This is an antiacne agent, external analgesic, hair colorant, and denaturant used in things like hair dyes and bleaches, lipsticks, acne treatments, after shaves, and rash creams. It is known to be toxic to human immune systems and is a possible carcinogen.[32]
  • Salicylic acid: This is a common ingredient in toners, acne treatments, cleansers, moisturizers, exfoliants, shampoos, foundations, dandruff treatments, anti-aging products, and lotions. It is used as an anti-acne agent, dandruff treatment, wart remover, exfoliant, fragrance ingredients, hair conditioner, skin conditioner, and preservative and is a suspected neurotoxicant, immune system toxicant, and hormone disruptor.[33]
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS): This surfactant that also gives many products a foaming quality is associated with concerns about organ system toxicity, as well as skin, eye, and lung irritation.[34]
  • Sorbitol: This is an alcohol placticizer that is used in facial cleansers, moisturizers, hair colors and bleaches, body washes, toothpastes, soaps, conditioners, and anti-aging products as a flavoring agent, fragrance ingredient, humectants, and skin conditioner, and may be related to cancer and organ system toxicity.[35]
  • Synthetic fragrances: Used in a wide variety of cosmetics and personal care products, synthetic fragrances such as nitromusks and polycyclic musks are hormone disruptors and can bioaccumulate in the food chain, creating environmental problems as well.[36] They are also known to contribute to poor indoor air quality since they are considered volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
  • Triclosan:  Added to many personal care products as a biocide (antibacterial agent), preservative, or deodorant agent, triclosan has already been restricted for use in cosmetics in Canada and Japan because it is an endocrine disruptor and potential organ toxicant. More importantly, antibacterials like this one spur the development of drug-resistant bacteria, creating even more menacing threats for human and animal populations of future generations as we lose the ability to fit off disease.[37]
  • Triethanolamine (TEA): Related to DEA, TEA is another chemical used in things like cleansers, sunscreens, makeup, shaving creams, scrubs, and moisturizers as a fragrance ingredient, pH adjuster, emulsifying agent and so on. It is a known human immune system toxicant, respiratory and skin irritant, and may be linked to cancer.[38]

If you're not sure if a particular product is natural and safe for you to use check out the Skin Deep database. 

If you want to find out more about how to choose natural facial cleansers, healthier skin toners, safe acne treatments, and effective natural eye creams, check out our articles on each of these products and homemade recipes in our Facial Care and Skin Care section. 






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References

1  1,4-dioxane. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2010, from Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: http://www.safecosmetics.org/article.php?id=288

2  Ethanol. (n.d.). Retrieved May 26, 2010, from Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient/702285/ETHANOL/

3  Isopropyl Alcohol. (n.d.). Retrieved May 26, 2010, from Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient/703198/ISOPROPYL_ALCOHOL/

4  Methanol. (n.d.). Retrieved May 26, 2010, from Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient/703871/METHANOL/

5  Benzyl Alcohol. (n.d.). Retrieved May 26, 2010, from Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient/700697/BENZYL_ALCOHOL/

6  SD Alcohol. (n.d.). Retrieved May 26, 2010, from Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient/705841/SD_ALCOHOL/

7  Ammonia. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2010, from Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient/700353/AMMONIA/

8  Benzoyl Peroxide. (n.d.). Retrieved May 26, 2010, from Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient/700694/BENZOYL_PEROXIDE/

9  Butylated hydroxyanisole. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2010, from Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient/700740/BHA/

10  Coal tar dyes. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2010, from Healthy Child Healthy World Chemical Encyclopedia: http://healthychild.org/issues/chemical-pop/Coal_tar_dyes/

11  Diazolindinyl Urea. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2010, from Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient/701923/DIAZOLIDINYL_UREA/?ingred06=701923

12  Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2010, from David Suzuki Foundation: http://www.davidsuzuki.org/issues/health/science/toxics/chemicals-in-your-cosmetics---formaldehyde-releasing-preservatives/index.php

13  DEA. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2010, from David Suzuki Foundation: http://www.davidsuzuki.org/issues/health/science/toxics/chemicals-in-your-cosmetics---dea/index.php

14  DMDM Hydantoin. (n.d.). Retrieved April 13, 2010, from Environmental Working Group Skin Deep Cosmetic Database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient.php?ingred06=702196

15  Ethanolamine. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2010, from Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient.php?ingred06=702286

16  Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2010, from National Cancer Institute: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/formaldehyde

17  Glycolic acid. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2010, from Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient/702704/GLYCOLIC_ACID/

18  Lactic Acid. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2010, from Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient/703350/LACTIC_ACID/

19  Petrolatum. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2010, from David Suzuki Foundation: http://www.davidsuzuki.org/issues/health/science/toxics/chemicals-in-your-cosmetics---petrolatum/index.php

20  Padimate O. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2010, from Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient/704392/PADIMATE_O/

21  Octinoxate. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2010, from Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient.php?ingred06=704203

22  Oxybenzone. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2010, from Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient/704372/OXYBENZONE/

23  Parabens. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2010, from Environmental Working Group: http://www.ewg.org/chemindex/term/563

24  Phenol. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2010, from Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient/704805/PHENOL/

25  What the nose knows: Think twice before buying a loved one perfume, cologne. (2003, February 12). Retrieved April 12, 2010, from MSNBC: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3076635/

26  Preventing the use of six phthalates in soft vinyl children's toys and child-care articles. (2009, June). Retrieved April 12, 2010, from Health Canada: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ahc-asc/media/nr-cp/_2009/2009_96bk1-eng.php

27  PVP. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2010, from Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient/705419/PVP/

28  Polyethylene glycol. (n.d.). Retrieved April 12, 2010, from Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient/704983/POLYETHYLENE_GLYCOL/

29  Polysorbate 80. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2010, from Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient.php?ingred06=705142

30  Ethylene Glycol and Propylene Glycol: Health Information Summary. (2006). Retrieved May 25, 2010, from New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services: http://des.nh.gov/organization/commissioner/pip/factsheets/ard/documents/ard-ehp-12.pdf

31  Quarternium-15. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2010, from Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient/705478/QUATERNIUM-15/

32  Resorcinol. (n.d.). Retrieved May 26, 2010, from Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient/705539/RESORCINOL/

33  Salicyclic Acid. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2010, from Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient/705746/SALICYLIC_ACID/

34  Sodium lauryl sulfate. (n.d.). Retrieved April 13, 2010, from Environmental Working Group Skin Deep Cosmetic Database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient.php?ingred06=706110

35  Sorbitol. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2010, from Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient.php?ingred06=706239

36  Synthetic Musks. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2010, from Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: http://www.safecosmetics.org/article.php?id=643

37  Antibacterial or antimicrobial soaps and kitchen disinfectants. (2008, September 17). Retrieved April 12, 2010, from Center for American Progress: http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2008/09/green_clean.html

38  Triethanolamine. (n.d.). Retrieved April 12, 2010, from Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Costmetic Safety Database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient/706639/TRIETHANOLAMINE/

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